Here’s what The Culture Tsar has been listening to for the past week. Check out highlights from each album on The Culture Tsar’s Weekly Highlights playlist on Spotify to listen for yourself.

If you’re reading this after the Spotify list has updated, check out The Culture Tsar’s 2018 Highlights playlist to find the selections below.

1: Cults: Offering (2017)

Swirly and dreamy, Offering is one of those albums that lulls you into a different state of mind when you listen to it for extended periods. The female vocalist has a lovely, soothing voice that delivers a sort of mental massage. Most of the songs are drenched in echo and chorus effects, with soft synths whooshing in from every direction. At some points, it sounds almost like a choral piece written for some new age spiritual center. It’s an album that’s best consumed in small doses. Listening to the whole album at once is kind of like eating the entire roll of Sweet Tarts at one time; you enjoy it a lot at first, but your taste buds are oversaturated about halfway through and you can’t tell one flavor from the other by the end. The Culture Tsar came away from this album feeling like he should have liked it more, but the songs themselves aren’t very memorable despite sounding quite good. And the album does sound good, with excellent production and arrangements throughout. There’s just not a lot of variation. The songs all feel like they’re at the same tempo and trying to put the listener in the same emotional state. It’s fine, but never really rises to the level of anything special.

2: Esben and the Witch: A New Nature (2014)

Now this is some interesting stuff. England’s Esben and the Witch is a difficult band to categorize. A sort of mixture of psychedelic rock, folk music, and heavy metal, this band is all about atmosphere. They have a great sound when they’re locked in and rocking, with a solid rhythm section, distinctive guitars, and powerful, haunting female vocals. There isn’t an easy comparison, but they remind The Culture Tsar of Elysian Fields crossed with The Gathering. Maybe the best way to describe them would be to say they’re the most kick ass band you’d ever find playing at the bar on the cool side of town where all the artistic types hang out. Musically, they swing from a subdued, almost coffeehouse melancholy sound with the singer backed up by a single acoustic guitar to a snarling maelstrom of Black Sabbath inspired fury. Actually, early Black Sabbath is a good comparison. They don’t really sound like Sabbath, but their songs have the same sort of tonal variation found on those first few Black Sabbath albums. The songs on A New Nature are a mixed bag. Some of them are long and well developed, while others are quite short and feel almost unfinished by comparison. Esben and the Witch isn’t for everybody. Some might find them tedious and pretentious while others find them brilliant and inspired. The Culture Tsar is firmly in the latter category. I loved this band and want to hear more from them. While A New Nature is quite good, their more recent album, Older Terrors (2016), is even better. Highly recommended overall.

3: The Mission: Another Fall From Grace (2017)

The Culture Tsar was not familiar with The Mission despite the fact that the band’s been around since the late 1980s. This is quite remarkable because their grim, vaguely goth sound is right in The Culture Tsar’s wheelhouse. They sound a lot like Peter Murphy’s solo material, their minor key laden guitar and keyboard work bolstered by strong baritone vocals. The songs on this album are confident and mature, never straying far from the central themes of age, sorrow, and regret. Despite the emotional heaviness of the material, many of the songs are quite catchy and memorable. This is an experienced band at the peak of its creative powers and it’s an impressive thing to hear. While the back half of the album isn’t quite as good as the first, there’s still a lot of great material here. If you’ve enjoyed listening to bands like The Cure, The Smiths, or Depeche Mode, you’ll probably love this album. The Culture Tsar certainly plans on going back to listen to The Mission’s previous albums at some point.

4: Port Noir: Any Way the Wind Blows (2016)

The Culture Tsar has been dreading writing about this band because he still has no idea whether he likes them or not.

The initial impression wasn’t good. Musically, the band is pretty great. They have a versatile sound that can swing from a synth-infused heavy pop rock to more of a groove-laden metal style. Their songs are pretty well written, with catchy hooks and some driving rhythms that hold your attention. But then there’s the vocalist. After listening to the entire album…I just don’t know how I feel about him. It’s not that he’s bad, because he’s not. He has a very good voice, actually. The problem is the style. He clearly draws a lot of inspiration from Maynard James Keenan of Tool and A Perfect Circle fame, with a rather disjointed delivery that doesn’t lock in with the rest of the song musically. Again, it’s not bad, just jarring. Once you get accustomed to it over the course of the first few songs, the band’s sound kind of comes into focus and works…sort of. I don’t know. The vocal style definitely makes the band stand out from the crowd, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. The Culture Tsar was ready to label them as an “Enemy of the People” about thirty seconds into the opening song, but by the second track, his stance softened enough to give the band a chance. By the end of the album, he’s no closer to a final decision, so consider this one a “love it or hate it” selection. If you dig the vocalist’s unique style, there’s a lot to like about Port Noir. If not, well, you’re not missing out on anything transcendent, so it’s probably best to just move on to another band.

5: Portugal. The Man: Woodstock (2017)

While it feels a bit like cheating to select an album by one of the most popular bands in the world right now, a close friend of The Culture Tsar has long insisted on hearing his opinion on Portugal. The Man.

So here it is.

Yeah. They’re good. Very good.

There’s probably not a lot The Culture Tsar can say about this album that hasn’t already been written by music/culture critics the world over, but it’s a wonderfully retro-infused pop album with tons of catchy tunes. In many ways, they’re the perfect band for today’s cultural environment because their songs sound like a blend of many disparate elements that’s constantly pushing something new to the front of the song. If you don’t like something about a song, just wait twenty seconds and it will probably change. There’s a lightness and a vitality to the band’s music that’s very compelling. They’re easy to listen to, though that does make The Culture Tsar wonder how well this band will endure over time. You can imagine many of these songs playing on any number of television commercials or movie/television trailers, but will they still resonate with the average listener five to ten years from now? Maybe, maybe not. For now, though, they’re definitely a fun listen.

That’s it for the Culture Tsar’s musical offerings this week. Here’s a sneak peak at next week’s albums:

1: Junius: Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light (2017)

2: We Are Scientists: Helter Seltzer (2016)

3: Client: Authority (2014)

4: The Eden House: Songs for the Broken Ones (2017)

5: Elysian Fields: For House Cats and Sea Fans (2014)